‘Hometown Habitat’ shows people have the power to bring back nature to their hometowns

Filmmaker Catherine Zimmerman

Filmmaker Catherine Zimmerman

To make the documentary “Hometown Habitat: Stories of Bringing Nature Home,” Catherine Zimmerman and her film crew traveled the country to profile individuals and groups making an ecological difference by using native plants, helping heal the Earth one yard at a time. Along the way, she started The Meadow Project to educate and raise awareness about sustainable, native, healthy, land care practices that support wildlife and human life.

One Earth Film Festival spoke with Zimmerman the week before the start of the 2017 festival.

Q: What compelled you to make “Hometown Habitat”?

CZ: I was teaching an organic land care class to a group of 15 people. Although it felt good that I had taught them this alternative way of looking at an ecosystem, I wanted to get that message out to a broader audience.  So that’s when the Meadow Project got started with the mission to educate people through film about sustainable, native, healthy, easy and affordable land care practices that support wildlife and human life. I wanted to talk about why native habitats are important and to look at the ecological connections between native plants and insects. It’s about flipping the landscaping paradigm to make it more about planting native plants that are critical to the survival and vitality of local ecosystem.

Q: What do you feel is the message in the stories you share in this movie?

CZ: I realized while filming that the theme spreading through out these seven stories was community. It’s amazing all the people who in their own communities are doing sustainable practices. Each story shares a positive message and shows people have the power to bring back nature to their hometowns.

Q: A lot of people in our area are fans of Doug Tallamy. Tell us a little about your collaboration with him.

CZ: Doug’s message is that we have to plant native plants to keep our functional ecosystems and here’s why . . . we’ve torn them down through development, which has resulted in species loss.  We need to restore them. Only 5 percent of the country is still natural and pristine and we’re only going to save 5 percent of the species if we only have 5 percent of the habitat.

In the film he explains the importance of a food web. There is the aha moment when you realize 6,000-9,000 caterpillars are needed to bring one clutch of chickadee birds to maturity.  And we learn how important native plants are to support these caterpillars that can only eat or “specialize” on a particular native plant. Then we add in what native plants do for us in terms of ecosystem services like give oxygen, provide pollinator services, sequester carbon, help to build the soil, hold water and help with water run off and erosion. And these services are free.

Q: I understand one of the stories in “Hometown Habitat” centers on a couple in Grayslake, the Ranneys and an ecologist, Steve Apfelbaum. What made their story stand out to you?

CZ: George and Vicky Ranney wanted to show how conservation development could support ecosystems.  Partnering with Steve Apfelbaum and others, they developed Prairie Crossing. The development has a storm water infrastructure that is managed by native plants. The storm water runoff filters through the plants and eventually into a man-made lake. This lake is so clear and stable that Illinois actually brings fish there to study. It is amazing. So it’s really a unique place and I felt like I wanted people to see how it is possible to not only save money using native plants but have, as Steve Apfelbaum says, “Daily access to nature.”

Q: What other stories stand out for you?

CZ: The segment about Trees in New York City sequestering carbon is one very powerful way native plants help us.  We profile the Million Trees campaign in New York City. The city wanted to plant a million trees in 10 years and unbelievably they did it in eight years. They only managed to do that because they were smart enough to involve citizens who helped plant and steward the trees where they lived. They have a stake in how it works. After all, street trees are their front yards and natural areas are their back yards.

Another segment is about a National Wildlife Federation program called Sacred Grounds. The story leads off with Rabbi Scherlinder Dobb talking to his congregants as they assemble for a planting day.  “We are re-wilding. You are the hands. We are turning this land back to what it once was, can and should be. Just imagine the pollinators, in decline, and the songbirds who can have breakfast by the mosques, lunch at the synagogue, 4 p.m. tea at the temple and dinner at the church because we connect sacred grounds and create islands of sustainability.” The idea is that if more congregations shared this idea of re-wilding, a substantial corridor for wildlife will be established.

Q: The One Earth Film Festival offers opportunities for people to take action following a screening. What do you recommend as the first step to creating a home habitat?

CZ: It doesn’t have to be overnight. They should find out what they have on their own site, shade, sun, wildlife, etc. This helps them understand what plants they need to put in. Using native plants that are adapted to their region, with deep root systems, will survive better than artificially supported lawn plus they will be supporting the local ecosystem. On our website, we list groups and native plant nurseries across the country that can help in creating a home habitat using native plants. I advise if using a landscaper, the homeowner really needs to make clear that they are interested in using native plants. The key is diversity. It’s one of the most important concepts ever. It’s a richer system when you have diversity, which is a key for life.

Q: You’ve successfully made a career of filmmaking and horticulture. Tell us a little about how you juggle the two?

CZ: It’s not a juggling act but rather a way to make both filmmaking and horticulture compatible in helping me find the key points to share my message in a stronger way.

This has been an evolution. I’ve been a filmmaker for more than 40 years. I only started doing horticulture within the last 15 years.  I went back to school when I was 50 and got more educated about organic and native plants. You don’t start making films without evolving. It’s true of everything. It’s going to be an evolution like when you start a native garden.

Having this background knowledge on horticulture and science has helped to make a better film on the environment, because I can pluck out those important details.

You don’t want to have a story that rambles. If you understand the subject, you can get to a more concise directed message. Now our message is to plant heavily using native plants. The key point in the film is that we need to flip the landscaping paradigm. We aren’t going to just build a house and make lawns be the default landscape. As Doug Tallamy says, “We’re going to build a house, figure where we need lawns to walk and play. But once that is laid out, everything else becomes heavily planted.  Lawn is no longer the default.  Plants are the default.  That’s the paradigm shift here.

—Briana Villarrubia and Cassandra West